American radio personality Paul Harvey is famous for his opening line: "You know what the news is. Now stay tuned for the rest of the story." Now we will find out the rest of the story of the story of rest. We will take a chronological journey through the history of the promise of rest presented in the Bible.
The story begins right at the beginning of the Bible. The first chapter of Genesis chronicles the creation of the material universe. The second chapter begins with a summary statement. Starting in Genesis 2:2 we read about another creation event: the beginning of God's spiritual creation.
After creating the heavens and the earth, God created the Sabbath by resting from His work of physical creation. The Bible says nothing further about the Sabbath for quite some time. There is silence on the subject throughout the entire age of the patriarchs (Abel, Enoch, Noah, etc.).
Abraham was a pivotal figure, the last of the patriarchs and the progenitor of the nation of Israel. The book of Genesis condenses the 2,000-year patriarchal age into the first 11 chapters. The story then slows and goes into great detail beginning with the life of Abraham, emphasizing the relative importance of this man and his descendants.
Genesis 26:5 contains a landmark statement about this great man of faith: "... Abraham obeyed My voice and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes and My laws."
What laws? The Bible doesn't say. The Expositor's Bible Commentary points out: "It is remarkable that this is precisely the way in which obedience to the Sinai covenant is expressed in Deuteronomy 11:1 . . ." Did Abraham know the law? If so, how? If not, what was the meaning of the words?
Is God telling us that Abraham obeyed the same laws He commanded Israel to observe in the covenant made at Mount Sinai? The commentary concludes that Abraham had these laws "written in his heart."
But a close comparison of both passages (Genesis 26:5 and Deuteronomy 11:1) reveals an important difference in wording. God says Abraham "obeyed my voice . . ." This suggests that God orally conveyed many of His requirements to Abraham. Could the Sabbath have been one of those commandments?
James 2:23 shows that Abraham "was called the friend of God." In John 15:14 Jesus defines His friends as those who obey His commands. In the next verse He says He keeps His friends informed, tells them what He is doing.
Similarly in Genesis 18:17 God asks, "Shall I hide from Abraham what I am doing ...?"
Even though this statement specifically refers to God's intentions regarding Sodom and Gomorrah, it illustrates the same kind of friendship. As a man confides in his friend, so does God.
Do you think God told Abraham about the Sabbath? Would God have withheld this truth from His friend only to introduce it to Abraham's descendants many years later? This does not seem logical. If Abraham, as the friend of God, knew about the Sabbath, it makes sense that he also kept it holy.
No manna on the Sabbath
Next we come to the nation of Israel. Our story resumes soon after Israel's departure from Egypt. Exodus 16 describes the distribution of manna, which God provided as daily bread for the Israelites in response to their murmuring about a lack of food.
God also used the manna to emphasize the weekly Sabbath as a "test commandment" to determine whether Israel would obey His law or not (Exodus 16:4). God told the people to gather the "bread from heaven" daily. He commanded them to gather twice as much on the sixth day, because none would be provided on the Sabbath (Exodus 16:15-26).
Sure enough, some went out to gather manna on the seventh day, contrary to God's command, and of course found none (Exodus 16:27). God then emphasized, "Let no man go out of his place on the seventh day" (Exodus 16:29).
How is this prohibition to be understood? The Soncino commentary makes this observation: "Rabbinical tradition has deduced from this context the prohibition that no Israelite shall go more than 2000 yards from the place of his abode. This is called 'the Sabbath day journey.' Travelling interrupts the rest both of man and beast, and was therefore to be avoided on the Sabbath day."
But is this an accurate assessment? One of the arguments some have leveled against the Sabbath is based on this misunderstanding. But the prohibition against collecting manna on the seventh day was only for that time. On that one occasion described in Exodus 16, Israelites would have had no need to leave their home on the seventh day if they had obeyed the command to gather food on the previous day, since the Sabbath was a day of rest. So God told them to simply stay indoors.
This was only a command for that time, not a basic principle of Sabbath-keeping. Otherwise, how could one attend a "holy convocation" on the Sabbath as later commanded in the Old Covenant (Leviticus 23:2-3) without leaving his "place"?
Now we come to the foot of Mount Sinai, where the command to rest on the seventh day was formalized as one of the Ten Commandments, written by the finger of God on two tablets of stone (Exodus 20:8-11; Exodus 24:12). The Sabbath commandment was enjoined upon each entire household, including servants and visitors (Exodus 20:10) and even animals (Deuteronomy 5:14). The Sabbath pointed the people to God as Creator (Exodus 20:8-11) and reminded them of God's deliverance from their bondage in Egypt (Deuteronomy 5:15).
The Ten Commandments are listed in the Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 ("Deuteronomy" means "second law" in Greek). Compare the texts of both passages, and notice that the wording is different. Since the Ten Commandments were written on stone, what words were written in the Fourth Commandment?
Was all the information from both accounts written on the tablets? If so, either the tablets were huge, or the writing was minuscule. More likely God wrote only the core commandment and spoke the other information.
Why is this important? Simply because today in the "church age" God is calling individuals, not whole families, whereas under the Old Covenant the laws were directed to the whole nation. If we conclude that the actual commandment was only the basic command to keep the Sabbath holy by refraining from work, we can classify the extension of the command to the entire household as a temporal administrative ruling that does not apply in the same manner in the New Testament Church, since salvation is an individual matter based on God's individual calling (John 6:44).
The core commandment applies only to individuals, not to entire households or even "servants" (we might say "employees"), as it did under the Old Covenant. In the church age we are all individually accountable to God. Therefore, no one can or should force the Sabbath on his or her adult family members or employees.
A sign between God and His people
The next stop on our journey is Exodus 31, where the "Sabbath covenant" is recorded in the midst of God's instructions for building the tabernacle. The Soncino commentary observes: "The work of constructing the Tabernacle that was now to commence was of the highest importance, and was work in the service of God; but it was not of greater importance than the Divinely ordained Sabbath, and was not to be permitted to supersede it."
The relative importance of the Sabbath command during the construction of the Tabernacle also explains another verse (Exodus 35:3) that is often used to criticize Sabbath-keeping regulations. Orthodox Jews take the verse quite literally and in fact forbid driving an automobile on the Sabbath, because starting a car requires igniting a spark.
However, since the prohibition against kindling a fire on the Sabbath occurs in a chapter about building the Tabernacle, the restriction should be understood as pertaining to kindling a fire to work on the Tabernacle (see the Keil-Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament, Vol. 1, p. 245).
Going back to Exodus 31, note that the Sabbath is described as a "sign" between God and His people. God emphasizes the same two lessons as in the two accounts of the Decalogue: to remind them of the Lord who sanctified them (Exodus 31:13) and to point them back to God as Creator of the heavens and earth (Exodus 31:17).
Again quoting the Soncino commentary: "The Sabbath was more than a day of rest. Its observance by the Israelites was a constantly recurring acknowledgment of God as the Creator of the Universe. It would be an open denial of God for an Israelite to desecrate the Sabbath, even in the construction of the Tabernacle; as well as a contradiction of the essential purpose of the Sanctuary, the sanctification of Israel's life in the service of God."
This Jewish commentary makes an interesting observation on the meaning of the expression "that you may know that I am the LORD who sanctifies you" (Exodus 31:13). Notice that the first "you" is in italics in many BIble translations. Who will know or recognize this sanctification? The Soncino explains that "all the world may recognize, by means of the Sabbath, that it is God Who sanctifies Israel, or provides it with the means of becoming a holy People. The Sabbath was recognized throughout the ancient world as the peculiar and distinctive festival of the Jewish people."
The Sabbath is thus portrayed as a personal sign between God and His people and an identifying symbol to the whole world of God's providence to Israel, His special people.
In regard to the Sabbath as "a perpetual covenant" (Exodus 31:16), the Soncino commentary says: "The weekly hallowing of the Sabbath by the Israelites, being a proclamation of belief in God and obedience to His law, effects a perennial renewal of the covenant of God with the Patriarchs."
Another promise of rest
At this point we need to put the weekly Sabbath on the shelf for a moment and consider another "rest," introduced to the nation of Israel in Deuteronomy 3:20. Deuteronomy 12:9, 10 identifies this as rest from the Israelites' enemies in the promised land across the Jordan. The promise is repeated in Deuteronomy 25:17-19, where the rest is understood as relief from the weariness and fatigue of Israel's battles against enemies.
All those in the first generation that left Egypt were denied access to the new land except Caleb and Joshua. But the next generation crossed the Jordan River and entered the land under the leadership of Joshua.
In Joshua 1:13-15, Joshua reminds the people about the rest that Moses had promised to them. Near the end of the book Joshua summarizes the fulfillment of that promise: "So the Lord gave Israel all the land he had sworn to give their forefathers, and they took possession of it and settled there. The Lord gave them rest on every side, just as he had sworn to their forefathers. Not one of their enemies withstood them; the Lord handed all their enemies over to them. Not one of all the Lord's good promises to the house of Israel failed; every one was fulfilled" (Joshua 21:43-45, New International Version).
We now move ahead to the time of David. Psalm 94:12, 13 promises rest (relief from adversity) to those who receive instruction from God's law. The context anticipates a time when the wicked are dealt with and justice prevails.
Psalm 95, widely acknowledged as a Sabbath psalm, explains that the Israelites of the first generation out of Egypt failed to enter God's rest because of the hardness of their hearts (Psalm 95:6-11). These verses are expounded in the New Testament book of Hebrews, as we will soon see.
The prophet Isaiah also speaks of the millennial period of universal rest as including freedom from sorrow, fear and bondage (Isaiah 11:10; Isaiah 14:3, Isaiah 14:7).
New Testament examples
Finally we come to the New Testament. Jesus Christ makes a powerful statement about rest recorded in Matthew 11:28: "Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest."
His words would have fallen on eager ears thanks to the heavy religious burdens imposed by the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 23:4). The deeper meaning of His promise is release from the bondage of sin (John 8:32-36; Romans 8:2; Hebrews 2:14-16). Yet we are still not completely free from sin (1 John 1:8, Romans 7;14-25). So the story of rest must continue.
This brings us to the book of Hebrews, where all the basic points of the story of rest are tied together. The faithfulness of Moses and Christ is spoken of in the first six verses of the third chapter. Beginning in Psalm 95:7 is quoted to document the failure of the first generation of Israel as a lesson to God's people today. Unbelief was the main cause of Israel's failure to enter the rest promised to them (Psalm 95:19).
The fourth chapter begins with an admonition to faith and obedience as a prerequisite to the rest that is still available to God's people. No one has yet entered that rest, not because God didn't have it ready; in fact, it was finished from the foundation of the world (Hebrews 4:3). That God rested on the seventh day from all His works indicates as much (Hebrews 4:4). David (in Psalm 95) still spoke of a promise of rest long after Joshua had led the second generation of Israel to rest in the promised land. This demonstrates that the rest fulfilled at the time of Joshua was only a type of a greater rest to come (Hebrews 4:6-8).
Now we come to a controversial statement: "There remains therefore a rest for the people of God." The Greek word translated "rest" in every other passage throughout Hebrews 3 and 4 is katapausis. The word for "rest" in Hebrews 4:9 is sabbatismos. This is the only New Testament occurrence of this word. Its meaning is fundamental to understanding this pivotal verse, which is the conclusion of everything previously said about "rest" beginning in Hebrews 3:7.
Since sabbatismos is found nowhere else in the Bible, some authorities think the author made up the word. Expositor's Bible Commentary asserts: "The term 'Sabbath-rest' (sabbatismos) is not attested before this passage and looks like the author's own coinage. He did not have a word for the kind of rest he had in mind; so he made one up."
By contrast, consider the following synopsis from the Anchor Bible dictionary on the meaning of sabbatismos: "The words 'Sabbath rest' translate the G[ree]k noun 'sabbatismos,' a unique word in the New Testament. This term appears also in Plutarch . . . for Sabbath observance, and in four post-canonical Christian writings which are not dependent on Hebrews 4:9 for seventh day Sabbath celebration.'
"The author of Hebrews affirms in Hebrews 4:3-11 through the joining of quotations from Genesis 2:2 and Psalm 95:7 that the promised 'Sabbath rest' still anticipates a complete realization 'for the people of God' in the . . . endtime which had been inaugurated with the appearance of Jesus (Hebrews 1:1-3) . . . The experience of 'Sabbath rest' points to a present 'rest' (katapausis) reality in which those 'who have believed are entering' (Hebrews 4:3) and it points to a future 'rest' reality (Hebrews 4:11). Physical Sabbath-keeping on the part of the New Covenant believer as affirmed by 'Sabbath rest' epitomizes cessation from 'works' (Hebrews 4:10) in commemoration of God's rest at creation (Hebrews 4:4 = Genesis 2:2) and manifests faith in the salvation provided by Christ.
"Hebrews 4:3-11 affirms that physical 'Sabbath rest' (sabbatismos) is the weekly outward manifestation of the inner experience of spiritual rest (katapausis) in which the final . . . rest is . . . experienced already 'today' (Hebrews 4:7). Thus 'Sabbath rest' combines in itself creation-commemoration, salvation-experience, and eschaton (endtime)-anticipation as the community of faith moves forward toward the final consummation of total restoration and rest."
This multivolume work decisively concludes that sabbatismos means keeping the seventh-day Sabbath. Based on that conclusion, Hebrews 4:9 stresses the need to continue to keep the Sabbath in a New Covenant context, even though the day also embodies all it meant under the Old Covenant.
This is a plausible explanation, given that the book of Hebrews is addressed to converted Jews to explain the transition from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant. The Sabbath and circumcision have long been considered two of the cardinal tenets of Judaism, identifying the Jews as "the people of God." However, by the time of Christ, the meaning of the Sabbath had become buried under a mountain of dos and don'ts.
Sabbath-keeping degenerated into legalism
The Sabbath, which even under the Old Covenant was to be a delight (Isaiah 58:13-14), had become a heavy burden as Sabbath-keeping degenerated into the bondage of legalism, perpetuated by the narrow-minded scribes and Pharisees. Jesus Christ condemned their human traditions and set the example of how to keep the Sabbath as God's gift to mankind (Mark 2:27-28).
What could be more appropriate to the book of Hebrews than the elevation of the Sabbath to its full meaning and intent in the plan of God?
So the Sabbath retains its Old Covenant meanings identifying God's specially sanctified people ("the people of God") and pointing them back to God as Creator. Added to that is the New Covenant meaning of the rest through Christ, fulfilled in type by the rest given to Israel during Joshua's time (Hebrews 4:8).
This spiritual rest begins now in this life and reaches its consummation in the resurrection to eternal life at the return of Christ (Revelation 20:6). His return also signals the beginning of the millennial rest prophesied in the Old Testament.
The book of Hebrews cleverly weaves together three themes of rest: the rest from enemies promised to Israel, the weekly Sabbath and the spiritual rest through Christ. The conclusion is that Sabbath-keeping is still necessary for the people of God, the New Testament Church. We must all labor to enter the spiritual rest and continue to keep the weekly Sabbath because of what it portrays in God's great master plan, as Hebrews 4:10 affirms.
Commentary on the Whole Bible by Jamieson, Fausset and Brown takes a somewhat different stance on sabbatismos: "Israel under Joshua enjoyed at last rest from war in Canaan. But the 'rest' in this verse Hebrews 4:9 is the nobler and more exalted . . . Sabbath rest; lit[erally], 'cessation': rest from work when finished (Hebrews 4:4) as God rested (Revelation 16:17). The two ideas of 'rest' combined, give the perfect view of the heavenly Sabbath. Rest from weariness, sorrow, and sin; and rest in the completion of God's new creation (Revelation 21:5).
"The whole renovated creation shall share in it; nothing will there be to break the Sabbath of eternity: and . . . God shall rejoice in the work of His hands (Zephaniah 3:17). Moses, the representative of the law, could not lead Israel into Canaan; the law leads us to Christ, and there its office ceases, as that of Moses on the borders of Canaan; it is Jesus, the antitype of Joshua, who leads us into the heavenly rest."
The conclusion here is that sabbatismos refers to the "heavenly rest," which we would understand to be our sin-free condition at the first resurrection, upon Christ's return. This view is supported by Jewish tradition, which has long considered the messianic age as "the day that shall be all Sabbath and rest in the life everlasting" (Tamid 7:4).
However, note the following statement about the weekly Sabbath based on that conclusion as we continue the commentary quote: "This verse indirectly establishes the obligation of the Sabbath still; for the type continues until the antitype supersedes it; so legal sacrifices continued till the great antitypical Sacrifice superseded it. As ... the antitypical heavenly Sabbath rest will not be till Christ, our Gospel Joshua, comes, to usher us into it, the typical earthly Sabbath must continue till then."
Regardless of which commentary we accept, the inescapable conclusion is that observance of the weekly Sabbath remains a vital part of the New Covenant worship of God.
In Matthew 5:18 Jesus said not one jot or tittle of the law would pass away until all is "fulfilled," or has completely filled its purpose. The Bible clearly tells us that circumcision, animal sacrifices and temple worship have fulfilled their purpose. If the Sabbath were not in effect today, we would logically expect to find numerous New Testament passages clearly stating that. The overwhelming importance of the Sabbath to the Jews under the Old Covenant would allow for no less.
Obviously there is still a purpose for the weekly Sabbath. As Hebrews 4:9 says, "There remains a keeping of the Sabbath for the people of God." Observance of the seventh-day Sabbath as a command of God is therefore a fundamental teaching of both the New and Old Testaments.
We have come to the end of the story of rest. And now you know . . . the rest of the story.